From Rev. Elizabeth: Stories of Compassion

From the Minister of Congregational Life

woman in hatHearing a crying baby gets my attention. It gives me a visceral feeling of “oh no!” and a compulsion to do something about it: to bounce it up and down, to find its parent, to do something to answer its cry.

Compassion is related to that feeling. It has to do with feelings of empathy—emotions that almost seem physical— and the desire to do something.

The Christian story of the Good Samaritan has some powerful things to say about compassion. I know it’s an over-told story, but there’s more there than you may have learned in some conservative Sunday School. The story is a parable, a teaching story told by Jesus within the greater “story” of the Bible text called “Luke.” It’s worth approaching it as we might approach another literary text, by poking into its specifics: asking why was it told in this particular way.

In the text, Jesus tells the story to clarify what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself,” a central teaching of Judaism. Instead of answering directly when asked “who is my neighbor,” Jesus tells a story of a man mugged on the street, who is helped not by the people his audience would expect to be good, but only by a person from an enemy religious group, the Samaritans.

The text says that “a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.” That word for “pity” is also translated as “compassion.” Many, many scholars have pointed out that the word in Biblical Greek, splanchnizomai, is a very visceral, embodied word. It literally comes from the words meaning “guts” or “viscera.” You could render that phrase, “When he saw the injured man, he felt like his own insides hurt.” It refers to that feeling of seeing someone else’s suffering and feeling your own heart twinge, your stomach twist. “Suffering with.”

It’s also immediately followed by action: the man is moved with compassion and immediately goes to the man and bandaged his wounds. This word is used three times in the text called “Luke,” and in all three cases the feeling of compassion is immediately followed by action: by healing, by care, and by reconciliation. To cultivate compassion is to cultivate empathy and the desire to help: to be a neighbor.

To cultivate compassion, we need more than just education and reason. Karen Armstrong reminds us that human impulses toward selfishness and violence come from deep down, in our lizard brain. Because human selfishness is so deep in the brain, overturning those impulses requires working on a non-rational level. It means also working on the level of myth, of symbol, of spiritual practice.

We need stories.

It’s one thing to know that your religion teaches you to “Love God with all your heart and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s another to know what that looks like in practice. That’s the book of Luke has Jesus answering the religious expert with a story. That’s why I retold that story to you. Our world needs stories that teach us what compassion looks like in practice. Stories that tug on our heartstrings and our guts.

Stories that show us goodness and compassion employed by the religious other—by the customary villain, by the Samaritan. Stories like this cry out and call us back to our common humanity, and the affirmation of human life and human flourishing.

What stories call out to you?